10 Easy Ways to Keep Energy Costs Down

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The mercury's really climbing, and it's been hot enough to fry an egg.

While the clichés always come out when the weather turns hot and ugly, the utility bills always go up as well. So if you're becoming obsessed about keeping your electric and water bills lower, without turning off your air conditioning or completely giving up your sprinkler (though, yes, doing both of those would help), here are some energy-saving strategies that you may have not yet considered.

1. Check your hot water heater's thermostat. You might want to set it to 120 degrees, suggests Andy Farmer, education resources manager for Virginia Energy Sense, a statewide initiative developed to encourage electric energy efficiency and conservation in Virginia. "The default manufacturer setting for many water heaters is 140 degrees Fahrenheit," Farmer says. "However, 120 degrees is typically sufficient for your water heating needs all year round, according to the Department of Energy."

[See: 8 Energy-Efficient Home Improvements That Save Money.]

But then again, you may not want to set it there. Many dishwashers - especially the newer models -- need 140 degree water, so before you do anything, check the manual. If it indicates that the appliance needs 140 degrees, the next time you buy a dishwasher, you could get one with a booster heater -- and then lower your hot water heater's thermostat to the 120 degree setting.

It might be worth the hassle. Farmer says the lower temperature should save homeowners an estimated 6 to 10 percent on their utility bill, which could be significant. "On average, water heating is the second-largest energy expense in homes, accounting for about 18 percent of your utility bill," he says.

2. Look for -- and fix -- leaks. Repair leaking faucets, toilets and pipe; a leaking roof is a good idea to check out, too. An easy way to check for leaks -- aside from eyeballing your sink -- is to check your water meter before and after a two-hour period when no water is being used, says Mark LeChevallier, director of Innovation and Environmental Stewardship at American Water, a public utility company that serves 30 states and parts of Canada. If the meter changes at all, you probably have a leak somewhere.

3. Cook with something smaller than the oven. You bought your stove for a reason. Still, it's probably not a bad thing to be aware that any time you use a toaster oven, electric skillet, slow cooker or microwave, you use less energy.

4. Run your appliances in the evening. Especially if it's a brutally hot day. Why? "Because these appliances produce heat, it will cause your air conditioning to work harder," says Farmer, adding that holding off in the evening helps your neighbors, too. "It can also reduce any potential strains on the grid." Of course, if you really want to save money on your electric bill, Farmer points out that you could wash your dishes by hand.

5. Replace your filters. You hopefully are doing this anyway, since clogged air filters often lead to air-conditioning units and other items breaking down. Even if that weren't the case, an unchanged air filter means the air-conditioning unit, dryer or what have you will work harder or run longer, and -- you guessed it -- use more energy.

[See: 10 Ways to Live Green On a Budget.]

6. Turn off the ceiling fan. That is, when you aren't home. "Ceiling fans don't actually cool your home; they only circulate air to make you feel cooler," says Kathy Lyford, vice president of New England Operations at the National Grid, an international electric and gas company servicing the northeastern United States and England. So when you're at home, by all means, let your fans whirl away. But to let the blades spin for hours on end when you're gone -- that just adds to your electric bill.

7. Use electric fans. Instead of constantly running the air conditioner, try an electric fan. Even if they're on continuously, they use little electricity compared to an air conditioner, Lyford says.

8. Check your refrigerator and freezer temperature. The ideal refrigerator temperature runs between 37 and 40 degrees, and the ideal freezer reading is 5 degrees, according to Lyford.

Any colder, and, well, that's money you're wasting. Lyford adds that it's important to keep your refrigerator and freezer full "so they do not have to work as hard to stay cold. This can drastically lower the amount of energy they would ordinarily need to function properly."

9. Do some dusting. While you're stocking those refrigerator shelves, get out your duster, suggests Chris Chambless, co-founder and chief marketing officer for Ambit Energy, a utility based in Dallas that provides electricity and natural gas in deregulated markets across the country. He points out that when the coils underneath or behind the refrigerator are covered with dust, the appliance is working harder -- "and costing you more money."

[See: 10 Ways to Cut Your Spending This Week.]

10. Plant trees. True, planting trees is sweaty work, hardly a tip for beating the heat, and if you buy them, that's an outlay of some cash. But if you plant them near your house (not too near, of course), you'll create shade, which will eventually cool off your home as the trees grow and save you some money. According to the U.S. Forest Service Center for Urban Forest Research, shade from two 25-foot tall trees -- one on the west side and one on the east -- will save a typical house $57 a year in energy costs. As many arborists will tell you, if you plant deciduous trees -- that is, trees that drop leaves during the winter -- you'll get sunlight to help heat your home in the colder months.

Not that any of this tree planting advice will help you this summer, but as with so many energy saving strategies, by trying to lower your energy costs now, you may be doing your future self a favor.



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